Training camp is about a month away for the Miami Dolphins. When camp starts, players will battle to earn roster spots and starting jobs. There are 90 players on the team now and 37 of them will not be on the team after the final week of the preseason. Obviously, a considerable portion of the current roster will be battling just to stay on the team. As fans, we find it compelling to watch for undrafted or other fringe players attempt to make the roster in the hopes they will make a contribution on the field - after all, who doesn't like a good rags-to-riches type of story? but another good storyline to watch is the battle for starting jobs. This season, if Miami fans are looking for a major story in this regard, they may be disappointed. Coach Joe Philbin stresses that every position on the field is up for competition, but in reality, only a handful of spots are up for grabs. Most of the positions and possible battles are already settled and would take a massive leap for a player lower on the depth chart to supplant an entrenched player. That may happen, but for the majority of the starting jobs, you can pencil in whom the starter will be right now. However, thanks to OTAs and minicamp, some potential training camp battles have begun to emerge.
In the next few weeks, I intend to highlight what I see as the most intriguing training camp battles for this year's team. In the first installment, I will highlight two battles, with the second one being somewhat contingent on the first.
The biggest strength on the Miami Dolphins is the defensive line. There are 3 former Pro Bowl players on that line. All things being equal, you don't want to mess with a good thing with you have it. But, things are not equal. There are two important factors that those who build teams use when building a team: talent and money. Talent ranks first of course, but when the talent is relatively equal, money becomes the next deciding factor. Hence, the training camp battle at the defensive tackle position. Former starter Randy Starks was given the franchise tag by the Dolphins this year, ensuring that the tackle would remain with the team for another season. Starks was not happy with that, as he wanted a long term deal from the team. He used what leverage he had and sat out the voluntary OTA sessions. The coaches moved Jared Odrick in from right defensive end to defensive tackle. He played effectively there in the past and defensive tackle seems to be more of a fit for him than defensive end. During OTAs, a.k.a. football in shorts, Odrick replaced Starks on the first team and was a force, continuously collapsing the pocket. That's not a big deal, except when Starks returned for mandatory minicamp, he played mostly on the second team. Things just got interesting.
More than likely, the team was just sending a message - if you miss camp, then we can and will replace you. The secondary result of that move was that it created a training camp battle where there wasn't one previously. Thus, the biggest and most important training camp battle now becomes the one between Odrick and Starks for a starting defensive tackle position. Both players will be highly motivated to win this battle. Odrick will want to prove he can be a full time starter at tackle and Starks will want to play at a high level so he can get a big contract from some team in 2014.
There are things that favor each player's case. Odrick is younger and has a cheaper contract. Starks is the proven commodity and has the credentials. Odrick isn't much of a pass rusher at the defensive end position, but can be a pass rushing menace as a tackle. The biggest question with him is whether or not he can hold up against the run. As an end, Odrick can protect against the run, but that is less certain from the interior. Playing alongside Paul Soliai will help in that regard, but if he can't defend the run, teams will simply run at him instead of at Soliai. Odrick has the versatility and experience to play 3-technique defensive tackle in a 4-3 and defensive end in both the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses. If Odrick can hold down the tackle position, the Dolphins can feel comfortable letting one (or both) of their current starters leave in free agency without being pressured to replace him (or them) in the draft.
Starks is both a good run defender and capable pass rusher from the defensive tackle position. He can play any position on the defensive line at a high level with the exception of 4-3 defensive end. He can play a 1-technique nose tackle or 5-technique defensive end in a 3-4 defense. He can play a 1 or 3 technique in a 4-3 defense. As I mentioned earlier, all things being equal, Starks would be entrenched as the starter. The issue here is money and age. While Odrick's versatility is different than that of Starks, in this defense, Odrick and Starks would play the same position. If Odrick can prove to be as capable and effective a starter as Starks has been, then the team would simply move on from Starks next season. Starks will more than likely command a contract over $6M a year and rightly so for someone of his talent. Starks will also be 30 years old by the end of the season. While it's not unheard of for a defensive tackle to play effectively up into his 30s, the team may not want to tie up significant cap space in a player that they can replace with someone younger.
The way I see this battle going, Odrick has the advantage right now. He was dominant in OTAs and should that carry over into training camp, he will lock up the starting defensive tackle position along with Soliai. If Odrick wins the battle, he will still work in a rotation with Starks and Soliai, but that would pretty much end Starks' run with the Dolphins. Starks is no slouch however and he can easily win back the job if Odrick struggles. If he wins the job, he can put pressure on the team to resign him, especially if the team cannot or will not resign Soliai. While this battle has ramifications for the current season, it will also determine the future of this position for the Dolphins.
I paired these two position battles together because the battle of the former can determine the battle of the latter. Jared Odrick is not a 4-3 right defensive end in my opinion. His best position is a 5 technique in a 3-4 defense, with being a 3 technique in a 4-3 defense following closely behind. However, he has an advantage over the possible contenders for the starting right end job: run defense. The primary objective of a right defensive end is to pressure the quarterback. However, they must also be able to set the edge against the run. In that regards, he has an advantage over Olivier Vernon and Dion Jordan. Those two players are better pass rushers, but have serious concerns regarding their ability to set the edge. If Odrick loses the defensive tackle position battle, he will enter back into the defensive end mix.
But even without Odrick in the picture, there is still a possible battle for the right end position brewing. The Dolphins moved up from 12 to 3 in the 2013 draft to acquire athletic phenom Dion Jordan. You don't make a move like that unless you have big plans for a player. When they drafted Jordan, it was assumed he would become the eventual starter at defensive end. The Dolphins didn't make such a move in 2012 to acquire Olivier Vernon, but he is most definitely in the mix for the defensive end position based on OTAs. Jordan, thanks to the NFL rules regarding the quarters academic system, was unable to participate in any of the Dolphins' OTAs or minicamp. Even without that rule, he is still recovering from a shoulder surgery and wouldn't have seen the field anyway. But with the Starks situation moving Odrick inside, someone had to run with the first team at end and Vernon was that guy. He wasn't super flashy during OTAs and minicamp, but played well enough that defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers said that Vernon needs to see the field more.
Like Jordan, Vernon is versatile and athletic. Both can rush the passer and play coverage. Both can line up in a 3-point stance, 2-point stance, and even as 4-3 outside linebackers. The biggest advantages Vernon has over Jordan are experience and size. While Vernon is shorter, listed at 6'2" compared to Jordan at nearly 6'7", Vernon checks in at 270 pounds, compared to 250 for Jordan. That weigh difference becomes a factor in the run game. Vernon also has a full season of NFL experience and that is always an advantage over a rookie. Jordan has his own advantages though, not the least of which is being a high draft pick. Jordan was more productive in college in terms of sacks. Jordan also appears to be more naturally talented as a pass rusher than Vernon.
I see this battle playing out in a couple of ways. If Odrick gets thrown back into the mix, the battle will be between him and Vernon, with Jordan becoming a pass rushing specialist in his rookie year. And that's fine since that would allow the team to develop Jordan at a slower pace and not place too many expectations on him right away. If Odrick stays at tackle, then the battle will really heat up between Vernon and Jordan. Vernon will have to show the natural pass rushing ability that Jordan has in order to keep the rookie from taking his starting job away. I do not believe that the loser of this battle gets worked into the mix for starting outside linebacker however. I believe the plan is for both to become full time defensive ends.
These battles on the defensive line are not the only battles worth watching, but are the most important in my opinion. These battles will effect what is widely considered to be the biggest strength of the Dolphins. The consequences of these battles could affect the Dolphins approach to free agency and the draft in the next few seasons. These battles could give fans a glimpse of what the future for the Dolphins' defense will become.
How do you see this training camp battle playing out?
Next week, I will focus on a potential training camp battle brewing at the wide receiver position.